Pier closing leaves lasting impact

Pier reunion
A group of pier employees gathered at Bayfront Park Thanksgiving morning. - Joe Hendricks | Sun

ANNA MARIA – The former employees of the restaurant and adjoining bait shop on the Anna Maria City Pier gathered Thanksgiving morning at the nearby Bayfront Park.

The group of about 40 people also included friends, family members and former customers. Last week’s gathering was the first time many had seen each other since the pier was closed in early September due to damage sustained during Hurricane Irma. For safety reasons, the pier will remain closed until a new pier is built, which could take two years.

Built in 1911, the city-owned pier and pier buildings leased to longtime tenant Mario Schoenfelder were already slated for future replacement when Hurricane Irma ripped the roof off the bait shop, damaged the T-end decking and created leaks in the roof of the City Pier Restaurant.

Pier personalities

Brian Blaine, 44, spent the past six years tending bar at the bait shop. Before that, he was an executive recruiter and corporate head hunter.

“I’d look at resumes, then go out to the pier and drink a beer or two with the old-timers,” he said of his pre-pier employment.

“The pier was not your typical restaurant. The pier is a magical place for us. It was my favorite place in the world. It’s the worst I’ve been paid, but the best corner office I ever had; and it’s a misconception that we are transients,” he said, before passing out lottery tickets as holiday gifts.

Alan Wirshborn, 64, was a bait shop bartender for the past three and half years. He now works part-time at the Bridge Tender Inn in Bradenton Beach.

“It’s been rough. I don’t think many of us have recovered from this,” he said.

Dwayne Martin, 69, worked at the bait shop for six years. He, too, was a regular customer before he was an employee.

“The customers became friends. For me, it was a little bit of money, but it was the center of our social life. The side bar at the bait shop was a memorial to the old guys who used to be pier regulars. They passed away, and we’ve got their names engraved in there. We need that saved,” he said.

“We’re like lost souls roaming around the Island looking for a place to go. We’ve been going to the Rod & Reel a couple days a week, but it’s not the same. There’s no replacement,” he said of the pier regulars.

Former general manager David Sork disputed the notion that displaced restaurant workers can easily move from job to job. He found a job off-Island after the pier closed, but that was short-lived.

“In terms of manpower, we’ve had one of the most stable organizations that I’ve ever seen around here,” Sork said. “We have mortgages, leases, day care, kids in schools and all that stuff. I don’t know anybody that’s upgraded since they left the pier.”

“We all knew at some point this place would close down – probably at the end of its lease – but we closed on a Thursday night, and that’s the last night we were there. I didn’t realize the emotional attachment I had to all these people and that pile of lumber out there,” he said.

Changing places

Waitress Cindy Graeff started working on the pier in 1997 when John Horne and his original Anna Maria Oyster Bar were the pier tenants.

She later went to work with Sork at the Rod & Reel Pier and joined him at the city pier after Schoenfelder secured the lease in 2000.

“I also worked for Bill Arthur, who had the jewelry table,” she said of the pier-based retail operation that was later expanded to include the Anna Maria Rocks store near Bortell’s Lounge.

“I personally believe the city has neglected that pier for 20 years. I would like to know the percentage of our rent that ever went back into that pier,” she said.

When reminded that the lease states Schoenfelder must maintain the pier, Graeff said, “But the city still has a responsibility. It should be a partnership.”

Graeff is working for Horne again, this time at the Anna Maria Oyster Bar in Bradenton Beach.

“I went from one pier to another. I went full circle,” she said.

Nadine Kollar waited tables on the pier for six years.

“I’m trying to paint some houses but it’s kind of slow. I’ve applied at quite a few restaurants and really have not gotten any calls. My savings are almost gone,” she said, noting that she’s also collecting unemployment.

Rockey Corby was pier manager for nine years. He’s now at the Rod & Reel Pier owned by Schoenfelder.

“They’re taking care of me, but I miss my home,” he said.

Traci Kearton worked as a pier server for 15 years. She pointed to Andre Bazile, who worked as a pier cook for 17 years, and said, “He’s the one Andre’s Famous Gumbo is named after.”

Bazile now works at Hurricane Hank’s in Holmes Beach. He’s glad to be employed, but said, “It’s never going to be the same as the pier. That pier is my house.”